A Journey Toward Spiritual Surrender
Contributed by Stephen Ingram
Week One: You Are Here
Pastor of Students, Missions, and Adult Formation, Grace UMC Birmingham
Lead Consultant, Ministry Architects
I love the theatre. I love it and all of its other forms of television, movies, and dramatic readings. The theatre is a magical place where you can suspend belief, suspend your reality, and step into a fabricated story, disconnected from time and place. You have the opportunity to be transported into a story, one told by those who did not live it and who, after the final curtain drops, will go back to being normal, typical, unexceptional, just like you and me. But, for those few fantastical moments, they can be anyone; a benevolent queen, a peasant on the front lines of the French revolution, or even a lion in the African savannah. The theatre is a magical place.
We know that one of the most prolific periods of the theatre was in the Greco-Roman world. Magnificent amphitheaters dotted the Greek and Roman countrysides and cities. You can stand center stage in many of these beautiful works of architecture still today. When we read the Gospel of Matthew chapter 6 the ancient world of the theatre and the teachings of Jesus come crashing together.
Scripture—Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-18
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."
In Matthew chapter 6 Jesus is hitting his stride, midway through the most prolific sermon he will teach. In these verses he continues to work through the central point of his sermon, which is “How do the faithful live and treat others in light of God’s love for God’s creation?” In chapter 5 he starts out by giving directives and teachings on how to live faithfully—both personally and relationally. At this point begins to use these teachings to draw some real-world contrasts in order to explain more clearly and practically what he means. In order to do this, he draws upon something his audience will all understand, the theatre.
Jesus begins to talk about the space we occupy in our world as people who are striving to live a more pious life. Piety, coming from the Greek word for justice, has to do with how the faithful engage their work in the world. This work as defined by Jesus and taken on by the first church was the work of prayer, taking care of the poor, the widow, and the orphan. This is the work, as Dr. Amy Jill Levine writes, where we “recognize the potential we have, as created in the image and likeness of God, to act as if the divine will occurs on earth as it does in heaven.”1 Jesus says, when you go about this work, not to be like the hypocrites. This word “hypocrite,” or in the Greek hupokrites
, is a word Jesus borrows from the world of the theatre, a world that these citizens of the Roman empire would know well. The word was used primarily by Aristotle to talk about what we now call actors. These were people, just like you and me, who would don a different persona as a means towards the goal of making the audience believe they are something or someone other than what they truly are. While this is a noble goal for the stage, it is antithetical to who we are called to be as people who follow the way.
Jesus says not to be like these hypocrites or actors. In essence, he is telling us that these works of piety should come from within, a headwaters bursting forth from the ground of our soul. These headwaters originate from within as opposed to an act or persona that we put on because of some sense of obligation or show. Do not play it up, do not embellish, do not do or be something for ulterior motives. I can almost hear Jesus, looking at his audience, deeply into their eyes, saying, “Be who you are, where you are, there is no need to try to pretend to be anything other than that.”
That is where we find ourselves on this first week of Lent. Jesus looking at us, staring deeply into our eyes and our hearts as we enter into this holy venture of Lent. He looks at us lovingly, telling us to be honest with ourselves, each other, and our God as to who and where we are.
There is no need to put on the costumes and the theatrical language in an attempt to embellish or hide who we are. If we start the journey through Lent not being honest with ourselves and each other, it will be very difficult to wave our palms and experience the depth and beauty of forgiveness and resurrection come Holy Week. This Lenten journey begins with a stripping down of our ego, the layers of personality, and the masks we wear. It begins with a recognition that all of who we are will ultimately be seen as we take the ashes and are reminded that “it is from dust that we came and it is to dust that we will return.” As people of faith, we have the opportunity to leave the cumbersome costumes, masks, and theatrics and to trade them in for the modest cloaks of humility, honesty, and penitence.
Questions for Reflection
- What costumes and personas do you wear each day? Think about the layers of ego and personality that each of us put on. What are yours, and what insecurities and expectations make these feel necessary to you?
- As we enter into Lent what are your honest answers to the ancient questions, “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?”
- Write down the answers to these questions. There is something about writing these things that make them more real and makes us more accountable to them.
God, who made us in your image, clothed us in your love and care, help us to see ourselves as you see us. Help us to know that our stage-worthy personas and acts are thin veils that you can see clearly through. Remind us that you love us as we are. Give us the courage to step away from these roles and into a humble acceptance of who and where we are. I pray this in the strong name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
- Levine, Amy Jill. Sermon on the Mount: A Beginners Guide to the Kingdom of Heaven. Abingdon Press, 2020.